A brief history of biofuels: from ancient history to today

Biofuels were once our primary fuel

Biofuels and bioenergy are as old as civilization itself.  Solid biofuels like wood, dung and charcoal have been used ever since man discovered fire, and are still used today for cooking and heating in many communities in developing countries.

Even liquid biofuels such as olive oil and whale oil have been used at least since early antiquity. Whale oil was extensively used in the mid 1700s and early 1800s and was the fuel of choice for lighting houses. Whaling was big business and whale populations were in serious decline around this time. Consequently, the price of whale oil went up and people eventually started using cheaper, fossil fuel-based kerosene in the mid 1800s.

American whale oil and sperm oil imports in the 19th century
American whale oil and sperm oil imports in the 1800s (Click to enlarge)

Luckily, the whaling industry ran out of customers before whales became extinct. Ironically, it may be fossil fuels that saved the whale at this time. Similarly, after 1900, wood fuels were largely replaced by fossil fuels. This also helped reduce unsustainable use of timber resources at the time, which had drastically increased in price during the century.

 Biofuels were our first transportation fuels

The first cars ever built were made to function on biofuels, rather than fossil fuels:

  • The first internal combustion engine to be patented in the US in 1826 was designed to run on a blend of ethanol and turpentine (derived from pine trees).
  • Henry Ford designed his original 1908 Model T to run on ethanol
  • Rudolph Diesel intended to power his engine with vegetable oil

Henry Ford predicted in 1925, “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented” (Ford Predicts Fuel from Vegetation, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 20, 1925, p 24)

Henry Ford in 1919
Henry Ford in 1919

The emergence of large-scale petroleum

Fossil fuels have also been used since ancient times in various forms on a small scale. However, it was in the mid 1800s that they began to be commercialized and available on a large scale. At this time, coal became widely available; kerosene, the first combustible hydrocarbon liquid, was invented; and drilling of the first commercial oil wells began. Consequently, the large supply, the low price, the efficiency and practicality of fossil fuels reduced our appetite for biofuels at this time. Also, the prohibition movement in the U.S. stopped biofuels development in its tracks, while it was still in its infancy, and encouraged use of fossil fuels.

Brea Oil Camp, California
Brea Oil Camp, California. Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

How did biofuels come back into fashion?

During World War I, there were (fossil) oil shortages, and therefore ethanol was in high demand, as it became known that ethanol could be blended with gasoline for a suitable motor fuel.

More recently, there have been several (fossil) oil crises since the 1970s that prompted renewed interest in biofuels:

  • 1973 oil crisis: caused by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) oil export embargo.
  • 1979 oil crisis: caused by the Iranian Revolution.
  • 1990 oil price shock: caused by the Gulf War.

This led many countries, such as the US and Brazil to begin modern large-scale production of biofuels. In the last 10 years, biofuels have been embraced as a way to help resolve some of the world’s greatest challenges: declining fossil fuel supplies, high oil prices and climate change.

And that is the story of how biofuels came to be, why they were largely forgotten and how they were recently rediscovered with renewed interest.


* Parts of this post are derived from information in the following report, where all associated references can be found: Webb, A. and D. Coates (2012). Biofuels and Biodiversity. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Montreal, Technical Series No. 65, 69 pages

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